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Through the centuries heresy and apostasy have come and gone, sometimes like a plague, sometimes like a flu virus, but always with damaging results for God's people. If this danger cannot be wiped out before the return of Christ, its patterns and nature can at least be understood, anticipated and thus controlled.
Despite the trappings of modern technology and the great gap of years between, our time and Paul's are inextricably bound together. This is evident in the time frame he indicates: in later times. Although some have taken this to mean that Timothy is to beware of a threat that is yet to manifest itself, the time in view actually includes the entire period that was initiated by the first appearance of Christ and that will close with his return (more commonly called "the last days"; 2 Tim 3:1). Paul's point is that periodically throughout the age of the church the faithful can expect the defection and active opposition of some who have professed to be Christians. The developments in Ephesus were to be recognized as "signs of the times," part and parcel of this evil, last age.
This unfortunate aspect of the present age was foretold by the Holy Spirit. The phrase Paul uses, the Spirit clearly says, may indicate a fresh prophetic message or (despite the present tense says) the restatement of a word given at an earlier time (compare Acts 20:28-31 and more generally Mk 13:22-23; 2 Thess 2:3; Rev 13). In either case, it lends authority to the explanation of heresy and implies that the conditions in Ephesus were not to be considered as a surprising development or as evidence that the church would ultimately fail in its task (compare 2 Tim 2:19-21). Since the some that are mentioned had evidently professed the faith, and in the Ephesian situation may have been leaders, one of Paul's concerns here is almost certainly to arrest any doubts about the permanence of God's church.
The driving force behind opposition to the church is Satan. Paul describes the heretics in Ephesus as those who follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. The apostle's ministry was marked by encounters with such movements, and he knew well their point of origin (2 Cor 11:15: "his [Satan's] servants"; see also 2 Cor 4:4; 11:3).
In our era the believing church cannot afford to be ignorant of the evil nature of this last age. Terms such as "heresy" and "apostasy" have fallen on hard times, due largely to the "witch-hunt" connotations associated with them. And indeed through the years (and in the present day) a great deal of injustice has been done to believers in the name of orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the presence of the cults alone recommends that we heed Paul's instruction here. A clear understanding of these "last days" and of the aims of the Enemy will prevent our being taken by surprise and may aid in maintaining a healthy church.
Although the apostle clearly underlines the demonic element in apostasy, he does not minimize the accountability of the apostates themselves. Their own part in denying the faith (some will abandon the faith) and thus providing the outlet for the demonic deception (such teachings come through hypocritical liars; v. 2) left them "seared in conscience." The latter phrase, by no means mere rhetoric, is vital to Paul's understanding of the nature of heresy.
First, as noted previously (1:5), Paul makes a connection between adherence to the faith and the "good conscience." Here, the reverse operation is seen: rejection of the faith leaves the conscience seared as with a hot iron. Behind this image is the practice of branding slaves with a hot iron. Rejection of the faith enslaves one to sin and falsehood, by hobbling the faculty of discernment and making it an ineffective guide to right and wrong.
Second, just as the "good conscience" is related to Christian conduct, here the "seared" conscience issues in perverted conduct (v. 3). For Paul the conscience is the faculty of decision. It enables the believer to proceed from the faith, the vertical dimension of belief and knowledge, to the corresponding horizontal activity of godly behavior (see on 1:5). The false teachers had lost the ability to make such decisions effectively--since their concept of the faith was distorted, their ideas about godly living were equally distorted.
The signal Paul sends is clear. If genuine Christian conduct flows from a vital relationship with Christ, then an imitation that is fanatically forced on others is at best human in origin, at worst demonic. Observable conduct may not be the litmus test of orthodoxy or salvation, but negative results here ought to raise questions, whether one is examining one's own faith (2 Cor 13:5) or the claims of a "Christian" movement (Gal 5:6).
In verse 3 Paul identifies two aspects of the false teachers' misguided behavior: forbidding marriage and commanding abstinence from certain foods. These aberrations probably stemmed from the false teachers' mistaken notion that the resurrection (of believers) had already occurred (2 Tim 2:18). Their view of the resurrection involved a misunderstanding of the times and led to a too-realized concept of the spiritual life.
As parallel situations in Corinth and in later Gnostic circles confirm, this kind of "overrealized" outlook was (paradoxically) accompanied by a negative view of the temporal world. They insisted that the End had come and that salvation was fully obtainable "now," but the world around them remained stubbornly unchanged. Bizarre (to the uninitiated) patterns of behavior (asceticism or libertinism) represented either an attempt to cope with the paradox or an attempt to implement belief. The false teachers in Ephesus evidently favored asceticism. It is possible that both marriage and the eating of certain foods were considered part of the old order (the order of things that they believed had passed away with the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) and therefore to be avoided. The asceticism alluded to in Colossians 2:16-23 bears a striking resemblance, especially where foods are concerned. But it is also possible that this behavior reflected the attempt to enact the life of resurrection paradise by following the model given in Genesis 1 and 2, before the fall into sin--after all, Jesus taught that there would be no marriage in the resurrection (Mt 22:30), and vegetarianism seems to have been the rule in Eden/paradise (see discussion at 2:11-15). The negative view of marriage seems quite similar to sentiments held by some in Corinth (1 Cor 7:1-7). In any case, whether to cope with the evil material world or to implement the new theology, the heretics enforced a regimen of denial.
Paul refutes only the food asceticism (his endorsement of marriage is implied elsewhere in the letter--2:15; 3:2, 12; 5:11). To do this he draws on what had become traditional logic in the church--all food is clean because of its Creator (Lk 11:40-41; Mk 7:15; Acts 10:15; 11:9; 1 Cor 10:25-31). The foods they reject God created to be received. . . . For everything God created is good (vv. 3-4). The only stipulation is that these foods be received with thanksgiving (v. 4)--that is, with a response of genuine gratitude as (probably) expressed in prayer. This was the custom of Jesus (Mk 6:41; 8:6; 14:22-23; Lk 24:30) and in Judaism in general. In the expression of gratitude to God came also the believer's acknowledgment of the created status of the food. Verse 5's additional rationale for the use of all foods (because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer) suggests that all a believer need do to sanctify any food is to make a prayer of thanksgiving to recognize the One who has provided the gift. In this context the word of God probably implies the use of biblical expressions in the saying of grace, as was common in Judaism.
It does not take much imagination to see that the Creator's act of giving and the believer's act of receiving (and enjoying) the gifts of creation are both part of a conscious communication process meant to strengthen the bond between Father and child. Furthermore, the communication is intimate, for only believers (v. 3) can enter fully into it. There are undoubtedly implications here that go beyond the dinner table to include the Christian's appreciation of the environment in general, but the starting point for developing this kind of understanding is the recognition through prayers of thanksgiving of God's gracious provisions. Neither the true gospel nor the life of salvation in this present age calls for ascetic denial. Rather, they encourage responsible use and enjoyment of God's creation.